UM law clinic takes on DCF over snarling food- stamp lines in the heat after Irma

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After tens of thousands of people in Miami-Dade waited for hours in the heat to get post-hurricane food stamps — many of whom left empty-handed after centers abruptly shut down — the University of Miami Health Rights Clinic wrote a scathing letter to the Department of Children and Families, demanding the agency come up with a more efficient way of distributing the much-needed relief.

“As you are no doubt aware, the failures of the DSNAP program in Miami-Dade County created public health concerns, hardship, and risk to vulnerable populations,” advocates wrote in the letter, a collaboration between the clinic and local community justice groups. “It also failed to serve innumerable eligible individuals who need food. The roll-out of DSNAP in Miami-Dade County was wholly inadequate on every level.”

On Tuesday, DCF responded by saying 2.2 million Floridians affected by Hurricane Irma received federal food assistance through the U. S. Department of Agriculture Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (DSNAP). Post-Irma, the agency said it has processed more than 577,000 DSNAP applications that meet the federal requirements and more than $836 million in federal food assistance has been distributed between DSNAP and its regular food stamp program across the state.

“As DCF works through the administration of this federal program, we remain absolutely committed to helping families affected by Hurricane Irma get back on their feet as quickly as possible…,” DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said in a news release. “DCF will return to Miami-Dade and Broward counties in the coming weeks to ensure every qualifying family has a chance to apply for federal disaster food assistance.”

Last week, DCF opened four food assistance centers in Miami-Dade and three in Broward to provide food stamps to those who don’t regularly receive them, but suffered a disaster-related loss because of Hurricane Irma. The centers were supposed to be open for five days, from Wednesday to Sunday, but some closed ahead of time. Tropical Park alone drew about 50,000 people Sunday.

The overwhelming response forced administrators to shut down centers leaving thousands in the lurch, including the elderly and disabled.

Thomas Voracek, a second-year UM law student who works with the clinic and tried to get benefits on behalf of two clients, said he was “shocked” with how the process went.

Voracek went last Wednesday to one of the Miami-Dade sites administering the emergency food stamps. He went on behalf of a client, a 45-year-old homeless man with medical issues who doesn’t receive food stamps. He finished the process in about two hours, and left with a nearly $400 electronic benefits transfer card for the man.

“It was a long wait, but in retrospect it was fantastic compared to what I saw over the weekend,” he said.

His experience over the weekend was far different. He tried getting help for a 66-year-old client who has been out of work since the hurricane, but instead faced “ridiculously long lines.” He tried on Saturday to no avail only to return at 5 a.m. Sunday — and still couldn’t get any help.

“It’s hard to have to tell him I couldn’t get him the help he desperately needs,” he said. “We’re talking about someone who is afraid they won’t be able to pay rent.”

JoNel Newman, director of the UM law clinic, which serves about 150 indigent clients, said a conference call between the clinic and several other advocacy groups resulted in the letter to DCF.

Among their requests:

▪ A more organized process for registration.

▪ Operate DSNAP sites for at least two weeks.

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▪ Food and water for those waiting outside in line if DCF continues to use tents.

▪ USDA to waive the requirement that registrants appear on-site.

▪ Release information about DSNAP center opening and closures in a timely fashion.

“In a county of this size, I don’t know how they thought they could do this in five days,” Newman said. “We are talking about a huge population of people who are in desperate need for basic necessities.”

In DCF’s news release Tuesday, officials said the agency has asked for federal assistance in extending the program and plans on helping everyone in need.

One action the agency took, however, was to transfer 110 DCF staffers from Miami to two Palm Beach County sites. The agency didn’t explain why it did this.

“This Food for Florida event is a historic undertaking, representing one of the largest federal DSNAP programs in U.S. history and DCF is absolutely prepared to meet the needs of every family in need,’’ Carroll wrote.

As for the lines, Carroll said the department is working to make the process smoother: “We understand that many locations are experiencing lines and we will continue to work around the clock processing applications to minimize wait-times and help Florida families recover.’’

To streamline the process, DCF asks people to pre-register online.

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